Willy Wonka

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Actor and original Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder, sadly passed away on 29th August 2016 at the age of 83. His family quickly confirmed that his death was a result of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, a condition he had suffered for 3 years but decided to keep private, with only his close relatives knowing anything of the diagnosis

Jennifer Turnbull, Associate Solicitor at Simpson Millar, explains why he may have done so, and how a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can have profound effects on sufferers – of which there are 520,000 in the UK.

Downplayed diagnosis

For many, the thought of losing memory of their loved ones is understandably something that is feared. Similarly, the fear of being forgotten by a loved one is enough to halt the discussion of such a serious illness.

It is within this framework that it is easy to see why Mr Wilder may have made his choice to keep the diagnosis from the public eye.

His family explained this more fully in their statement:

“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness… he simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

Within their statement, Mr Wilders family also confirmed they had been “the lucky ones” as the “illness-pirate” never stole Mr Wilder’s ability to recognise his loved ones and nor did it take “command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality.”

Understanding Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is a physical and progressive disease. Often it can be difficult to understand why a loved one’s behaviour is changing after such a diagnosis – and only with further understanding of the disease itself can the sufferer and their family come to accept the diagnosis.

The Alzheimer’s Society explains:

“Alzheimer’s disease is a physical disease that affects the brain. During the course of the disease, proteins build up in the brain to form structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. This leads to the loss of connections between nerve cells, and eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue.”

“Sufferers also have a shortage of some important chemicals in their brain. These chemical messengers help to transmit signals around the brain, and when there is a shortage, the signals are not transmitted as effectively.”

“Alzheimer’s is also a progressive disease. This means that gradually, more and more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms develop. They also become more severe.”

Organisations such as Alzheimer’s Society provide great fact sheets to help us all understand why people behave in a certain way and how best to react to it.

A private matter

Jennifer comments:

“Many of our clients are dealing with a claim for a loved one that suffers, or had suffered from, some form of Dementia. As part of this, it is not uncommon that our client’s will recount times when their loved one was confused as to the time, the place, or who the people around them were. They will often get confused between family members who are deceased and living, young and old, and this can cause distress and anxiety for not only the person with the disease but for those around them.”

“It is noted in the family statement that Mr Wilder did not want people to know about his illness as he did not want people to worry or to think of him as anything other than what he was most known and loved for.”

“Understanding the disease and the behaviours which accompany it can provide some comfort. It is also important to remember that a person is not defined by their diagnosis.”

Written by Jennifer Turnbull

For more information on elderly legal services and the services offered by Simpson Millar, please call

0808 129 3304

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